Town Heals and Remembers

After Newtown: Police Receive More Training for Working With Mentally Ill

Growing interested in "Community Intervention Team" course

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Giving police more tools to help those they encounter suffering from mental illness.

    In the year following the Newtown tragedy, police have reassessed the way they'd respond to a similar incident, and a number of departments are learning how to better work with people who have mental health issues or are in crisis.

    Louise Pyers, founder and executive director of the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, said one of her close relatives tried to kill himself by threatening to hit a police officer with a bottle.

    “What he did was try to entice a police officer to shoot him by threatening the officer and he was successful at that," Pyers said. "The officer did shoot him. And luckily, this young person was able to survive.”

    Pyers said the experience showed her the need for police training in how to best work with people with mental health issues or who are experiencing a crisis.

    For more than a decade, Pyers has been a driving force behind police Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, training. CIT training specifically shows officers how to recognize the mentally ill, deescalate situations involving them and quickly get them professional help.

    She said that in the 12 months since Sandy Hook, more police departments are asking about CIT courses.

    “I think what law enforcement is seeing is that they’re really does need to be more awareness community wide,” Pyers said.

    Windsor police officer Sue Bowman has been using her CIT skills for roughly a decade, and was recently honored for her work. Bowman explains you need a different approach when dispatched to a call involving someone with a mental illness.

    “Sometimes these cases take a little bit longer," Bowman said. "We have to slow everything down and ask more questions than we might normally, spend some time with the person.”

    In fact, the day before NBC Connecticut spoke with Officer Bowman, she was dispatched to speak with a suicidal man on the train tracks near Windsor Center.

    “It was clear that the gentleman was suffering from some mental health issues," Bowman said. "And we were able to calm him down because he was a little aggressive at the beginning. ... [We were able to] bring him down to where he wasn’t kicking, he wasn’t yelling, and we calmly walked him over to a waiting ambulance.”

    Bowman also helps other officers in Connecticut learn about CIT by serving as a facilitator for many of the 40-hour courses funded by the state. She said CIT may not prevent violent crimes committed by people struggling with mental illness, but it’s a start.

    “Would it have stopped Newtown? Probably not," she said. "I don’t know, but it may have assisted that young man, prior in some way. I don’t know. We can never say.”